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Mike’s Top Ten of 1945

I like 1945 because of the history surrounding it. World War II was basically over. It ended in June, though it had been a long time coming. By Christmas, 1944, it was pretty inevitable that the Allied countries would win. So you don’t really see a whole lot of war-oriented films out there. We’re returning to classical Hollywood storytelling.

There’s not a major overarching theme for this year. All things considered, it’s actually a pretty ho-hum year. Good stuff, but the overall quality of the films feels diminished from most of the other years of the 40s.

Though this is actually the year where foreign cinema started rising. Italian Neorealism began with Rome, Open City and that led to a lot of the major European movements over the next two decades.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1945

Along Came Jones

The Bells of St. Mary’s

Brief Encounter

Detour

Leave Her to Heaven

The Lost Weekend

Mildred Pierce

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Thin Man Goes Home

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

11-20: Anchors Aweigh, And Then There Were None, The Clock, The House on 92nd Street, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, Rome Open City, Scarlet Street, Spellbound, State Fair, A Walk in the Sun

Tier two: Adventure, Blood on the Sun, Brewster’s Millions, Christmas in Connecticut, The Corn Is Green, Les Enfants du Paradis, Fallen Angel, Flame of Barbary Coast, Isle of the Dead, Lady on a Train, Love Letters, Mom and Dad, My Name Is Julia Ross, She Wouldn’t Say Yes, The Southerner, The Story of G.I. Joe, They Were Expendable, Tonight and Every Night, Week-end at the Waldorf, Yolanda and the Thief

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1. Brief Encounter

“You know what’s happened, don’t you?… I’ve fallen in love with you.”

Perhaps the greatest romance film ever made. David Lean can lay claim to at minimum three perfect films. Most people wish they had one.

The film is about two married people who meet by chance at a train station and strike up a friendship. Pretty soon, they fall in love. But they both know an affair (or anything else) is impossible. So the film is ultimately about the tragedy of a love that almost-was. It’s absolutely beautiful.

There isn’t a film buff who hasn’t seen this movie, and I doubt there are any worth their salt that wouldn’t consider this one of the greatest films ever made. This movie is by far the strongest of 1945. It’s not even close. There isn’t a wasted moment in this, and it still tugs at the heartstrings, over 70 years later.

2. The Lost Weekend

“I’m not a drinker; I’m a drunk.”

Mama, there goes that man again. Billy Wilder is an American treasure. I’ll keep saying it. He’s four films in, and here’s how they’ve ranked: 11-20, #5, #3 and now #2. The man turned everything he touched into gold.

The film is about Ray Milland as an alcoholic author. His brother and girlfriend have been trying to keep him sober, but it isn’t working. Though he’s been sober for about a week. But now his brother and girlfriend are going out of town for the weekend. Which means that Milland is about to go on a drunk. So he goes about, finding every bar that will have him, and drinking himself silly. And the film is about alcoholism and how one deals with it. Still one of the most powerful films about addiction ever made.

This won Best Picture, and it’s not hard to see why. This movie stays with you. And it shows you how Billy Wilder was capable of making anything.

3. Leave Her to Heaven

“I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never.”

A noir filmed in color. And what glorious color at that. This is still one of the most beautiful films ever shot.

Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney meet on a train and fall in love. They marry. Pretty soon, though, he sees just how jealous she gets about anyone else who he cares about. Essentially craving all his attention on her. One summer, Wilde’s disabled brother comes to visit them. Tierney doesn’t like that. Let’s just say that doesn’t end well. She then gets pregnant. But, uh — the child is gonna be something that Wilde will love too. So, an “accident” occurs. And then Wilde starts to become close to Tierney’s sister…

This movie is so good. The Technicolor and set design are some of the best you’ll ever see. If I made a list of the 20 most beautiful Technicolor films of all time, this would be on that list.

4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“Don’t tell me that tree is gonna lay down and die that easily. Look at that tree. See where it’s coming from. Right up outta that cement! Didn’t nobody plant it. Didn’t ask the cement to grow. It just couldn’t help growing so much it just pushed that old cement out of the way. Now when you bust it with something like that, can’t anybody help it, like… like that little ole bird up there. He didn’t ask anybody could he sing and he certainly didn’t take any lessons. He’s so full of singing it just has to bust out someplace. Why they could cut that ole tree right down to the ground and a root would push up someplace else in the cement.”

Elia Kazan’s first film, and it’s a masterpiece. The novel itself is famous, and Kazan makes a film that holds up among the best of those coming-of-age, childhood reminiscence films. Like To Kill a Mockingbird and I Remember Mama.

The film is about a poor, Irish-American family growing up in Brooklyn. It’s told in vignettes, like a lot of the films of its ilk are. You have the mother, who is the backbone of the family. The father, who is well-meaning but a drunk. There’s the aunt trying to find romance. You have all the hallmarks. It’s great. Of course there’s the scene where the mother gets pregnant and worries about how they’ll feed and clothe another child. It’s great.

The highlight of the film is James Dunn’s performance as the father. The film itself is wonderful, but he’s a standout. The entire film is just amazing. I love it so much.

5. Mildred Pierce

“Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”

One of the great movies of the 40s, and one of the great oddities of the 40s. Here’s a movie that should be a melodrama, and yet it’s presented like a noir. And somehow both of those elements coexist within the same film. I mean, sure, there are very similar genres in a lot of ways, but it’s definitely an unorthodox mix of both at the same time.

The film is framed around a murder, but that also detracts from how great the rest of the story is. Joan Crawford is an unhappy wife, whose husband has been long unemployed. She cares more about her daughters and their future than she does about her marriage. She and her husband separate. She then goes to work as a waitress, desperate to provide her daughters with a higher social status than her own. Meanwhile, her oldest daughter (played by Ann Blyth) is ambitious, and really wants to be party of high society. And when she finds out her mother is a waitress, she’s disgusted, and continually berates her about it. So you have a movie about a woman working for her children, and her daughter being absolutely awful about it. It’s really terrific.

Crawford is great as Mildred, and Ann Blyth is incredible as Veda, her daughter. The things that girl does are absolutely atrocious. And great. The drama here is so good. You almost don’t need the noir angle. But whatever. It works. It’s great. It’s a classic.

6. Detour

“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

One of the great noirs ever made. The wonderful thing about this movie is that it was a poverty row noir. Absolutely no money went into the making of this movie, and it absolutely does not matter whatsoever.

This is essentially a movie about one man’s really bad luck. He’s hitchhiking across the country to go marry his fiancée. Along the way, he gets picked up by a guy willing to give him a ride. By pure happenstance, the guy dies. The entire thing is an accident, but it sure would look like murder to everyone else. So the guy assumes the dead man’s identity. But pretty soon he picks up a hitchhiker who knows the dead man… and things keep spiraling from there.

It’s almost funny, how crazy the things are that happen in this movie. But it’s so good. And the final monologue is one of the best ever put to screen.

There are different levels to film noir. A lot of the genre are these 60-minute “quickies” that don’t beat around the bush. So if you’re gonna get into noir, you should watch all the big classics. But you should also see stuff like this. This now has the reputation among the big ones, but there are a lot more just like this that are so good because they’re just straightforward and don’t care about having absolutely batshit plot twists.

The beautiful thing about this movie is how it can be so cheap and yet leave such a lasting impression.

7. The Thin Man Goes Home

“Right there was the little old schoolhouse. Once on Halloween I burned it down – slightly.”

You’ll never see a Thin Man movie not in the top ten for me. I love this franchise. This, to me, is the greatest franchise in cinema history. I can watch these movies all day.

The plot is about Nick going home to see his family. It’s just a routine visit, but the entire town is convinced he’s there on a case, despite his constantly saying that he isn’t. (Which is a nice way to continue that particular trope.) Meanwhile, a case develops anyway.

Great supporting cast here. Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport as Nick’s parents. Also Gloria DeHaven, Anne Revere (as a character named Crazy Mary), Leon Ames, Donald Meek and Edward Brophy, playing a completely different character than the one he played in the first film.

This is probably the weakest of the six. Maybe because unlike the others, this one doesn’t feature copious amounts of drinking and jokes about drinking. Mostly due to wartime liquor rationing. And due to the death of W.S. Van Dyke, who directed all the previous entries. It took four years for this sequel to be made because, during the war, Myrna Loy volunteered at the Red Cross and refused to do it. Then once the war ended she agreed to come back. She didn’t make a single film between the previous entry in the franchise and this film (further cementing her status as possibly my favorite actress ever).

I’ve said it four times now and I’ll say it a fifth — you can never, ever go wrong with a William Powell and Myrna Loy film, and a Thin Man movie is as close to a sure thing as you’ll ever get.

8. The Picture of Dorian Gray

“You think it’s only God who sees the soul.”

The classic story. Strangely this is one of the only real big screen versions of it. So I could say it’s the best, but it’s almost the only. Either way, it’s great.

A rich man in England poses for a painting. Convinced youth and beauty is the key to happiness, he wishes the painting could age and not him. This is done in front of a special statue, which magically grants the wish. We then watch as, over the years, the man lives a sinful lifestyle, never aging a day. Only the painting version of him begins to look as hideous and grotesque as his exploits.

It’s fantastic. Hurd Hatfield, who played Dorian, really didn’t do much after this. He was in movies people would have seen, but he was never in anything that he’d be recognized for. This is his best film and the director Albert Lewin’s best film. And you get George Sanders and Angela Lansbury here, both of whom are really strong. Lansbury’s so good, you wish she had more screen time.

One thing I love about this movie is that it’s entirely in black and white (gorgeously so. It won an Oscar for its cinematography), though there are four very specific moments of Technicolor — that being inserts of the painting, in all its horrid glory. They really punctuate the film and actually create more horror than most horror movies do.

9. The Bells of St. Mary’s

If we don’t fail sometimes, our successes won’t mean anything. You must have courage. Don’t give up.”

The sequel to Going My Way. Less consequential than its predecessor (if that is even possible), but still just as fun.

This one is closer to following the standard progression of the modern “religion” movies of this era: a church is about to go under and its land bought out by a greedy developer, and they have to convince him to change his mind. And of course, in the last minute, he has a change of mind and lets them keep their church. And beside that, you have Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley doing his thing throughout. This time, though, instead of a male priest, we have Ingrid Bergman. Things are much more contentious between the two of them for much of the film.

This is one of those movies that probably wouldn’t make the top ten in a stronger year, but it’s light entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that.

10. Along Came Jones

“If there’s anything in the world I like, it’s gettin’ saved from being shot.”

What a great western comedy. Gary Cooper lampooning his own persona to great effect.

He plays a man named Melody Jones who rides into town with his friend and gets mistaken for an infamous bandit. It’s similar to The Ox-BoW Incident, though very different in tone. Two guys ride into town just after a murder and get mistaken for the bandit. Though here, it’s played entirely for comedy. The actual bandit is in town and realizes this guy is a complete idiot, and is gonna use the situation for all it’s worth. Everyone in town thinks Cooper is the bandit so they’re all trying to kill him. And he’s this regular guy who has no idea how to use a gun. And then there’s Loretta Young, as the bandit’s girlfriend, who’s really good with a gun. The climax of this film might have been an influence on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, now that I think about it.

But it’s awesome. It knows all the tropes and is twisting them to its full advantage. Really fun, and it would make a nice double feature with The Ox-Bow Incident. Also co-starring William Demarest and the great Dan Duryea.

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11-20:

Anchors Aweigh — Great musical. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as soldiers on leave. Kelly’s the “experienced” looking for a girl for the next four days and Sinatra’s the young one who believes in love and all that. Naturally things don’t go for them exactly as planned, but there’s a lot of singing and dancing, which is great. Also the movie that launched Sinatra’s film career.

And Then There Were None — Based on the Agatha Christie novel “Ten Little Indians” (technically first published under another title, but let’s not get into that), it’s about ten strangers who end up on an island, only to find that they’re all dying, one by one. Great mystery film with a great cast.

The Clock — Great romance with Judy Garland and Robert Walker. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. He’s a soldier who meets her while on a two-day leave, and they fall in love. It’s a beautiful film. It’s simple, doesn’t try to get fancy, and it works. There’s a real magic to this movie you don’t see anymore.

The House on 92nd Street — This movie was made in cooperation with the FBI and has J. Edgar Hoover actually in it during the introduction. It’s a spy thriller about a man contacted by spies because of his German heritage, only for him to become a double agent for the FBI, as they try to uncover a Nazi spy ring. Good shit.

‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ — Powell and Pressburger. This is one of those movies that a lot of people today will see and go, “What the hell is that?” Others will be absolutely charmed by it. Wendy Hiller is a woman who… well, look at the title. She knows. Or at least she thinks she does. She’s on her way to marry a guy. Though bad weather keeps her from getting to her destination. So while waiting on an island, she meets the local people, as well as a soldier on leave. Her and the soldier start to fall for one another and she begins to wonder if she actually does know what she wants. Then there’s also the matter of this curse that exists on the island… (That’s the part that some people think is odd. It could be considered a bit of a fantasy film.) I love this movie. It’s so good. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up in the top ten over time.

Rome Open City — The beginning of Italian Neorealism. Roberto Rossellini. A film about the Italian resistance against the Nazis. There’s an energy and a vibrancy to this film, mostly due to Rossellini shooting it on the streets of Rome, half destroyed by the war. He had no money and no ability to shoot at the film studios. So this film contains what it actually was like to be in Rome at the time. And it’s astounding.

Scarlet Street — Fritz Lang noir with Edward G. Robinson. He’s a painter who meets a femme fatale and becomes so obsessed with her, he’s willing to do absolutely anything for her. She, meanwhile, has a boyfriend and thinks she’s conning Robinson out of a fortune he doesn’t actually have. A beautiful, tragic performance by Robinson, and co-starring Joan Bennett and Dan Duyrea.

Spellbound — Hitchcock. The last of his films to be nominated for Best Picture. A thriller set in the world of psychoanalysis. Gregory Peck is a new doctor at an institution who seems to suffer from a lot of the phobias the patients do. Ingrid Bergman, another doctor, looks into him and realizes he’s not who he says he is. The man he claims to be was murdered. When she confronts him about this, Peck admits he murdered the man and took his identity, and that he doesn’t know who he really is. The two end up on the run as they try to figure out what Peck’s real identity is (since Bergman doesn’t believe he actually committed the murder). There’s a fun dream sequence in this designed by Salvador Dali.

State Fair — A musical version of the 1933 film. A family goes to the state fair, and stuff happens. It’s fun. There are songs. It looks great in color. Rodgers and Hammerstein did the music. That’s the recipe for a good time.

A Walk in the Sun — Great war film. Lewis Milestone. A bunch of soldiers land in Italy with a mission to get to a farmhouse. It’s told from the soldiers’ point of view. They land, they have orders. They have no idea what’s waiting for them. There’s no heroic end to this. They’re not gonna turn the tide of the war. People die. They have to overcome all the stuff that happens to them. It’s a really engaging movie. One of the best actual World War II movies made during the war years.

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Tier two:

  • Adventure
  • Blood on the Sun
  • Brewster’s Millions
  • Christmas in Connecticut
  • The Corn Is Green
  • Les Enfants du Paradis
  • Fallen Angel
  • Flame of Barbary Coast
  • Isle of the Dead
  • Lady on a Train
  • Love Letters
  • Mom and Dad
  • My Name Is Julia Ross
  • She Wouldn’t Say Yes
  • The Southerner
  • The Story of G.I. Joe
  • They Were Expendable
  • Tonight and Every Night
  • Week-end at the Waldorf
  • Yolanda and the Thief

All right. I think we need to start with Mom and Dad, which is just this really fucking bizarre movie. The official designation of it is a “sex hygiene” film. A high school student falls for a pilot. She asks her mother to teach her all about sex and that stuff. The mother’s like, “Are you nuts? This is 1945.” So the girl goes and fucks the dude anyway. The dude then goes off and dies in a crash. Naturally, the girl gets pregnant. She asks her teacher about everything — her teacher, by the way, who was fired for teaching kids sex ed. Then the movie gets all into teaching you about the dangers of sex and venereal disease, complete with footage of live births. So it’s basically an “educational” (read: exploitation) film about sex and venereal disease. It’s amazing, in that Reefer Madness kind of “what the fuck am I watching” way.

Tonight and Every Night is a story about a theater troupe who never misses a performance, despite the war. And it’s about romance between two of the girls in the show and a dancer and a soldier. A nice little movie with music and tragedy and all those things you’d expect. Week-end at the Waldorf is an American-set version of Grand Hotel, essentially. Starring Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Edward Arnold and Keenan Wynn. Flame of Barbary Coast is John Wayne. He’s a cowboy who comes out to San Francisco and falls in love with a dance hall singer whose boyfriend cheats him out of all his money. Determined to win the singer, he learns all about gambling and comes back as a casino owner, challenging her boyfriend for run of the town. Then the San Francisco Earthquake happens. It’s pretty much a variation of San Francisco from nine years earlier. But with John Wayne. So it’s cool. Blood on the Sun is a fun one. James Cagney as a journalist in Japan trying to expose Japan’s plan to conquer the world. Good shit.

Brewster’s Millions is the original version that was remade into the more well-known Richard Pryor version. Same story, just as funny. A guy, in order to inherit a large sum of money, must spend a shit ton within a few days in order to inherit the rest. Fun fact: this movie was banned in Tennessee because the black servant character had “too familiar a way about him.” Les Enfants du Paradis is one of the greatest French films ever made. About a prostitute and the men who love her. (Like all the great French films, really.) Fallen Angel is a fun noir about a drifter who gets involved with a waitress, an ex-cop and a fake fortune teller. Otto Preminger directed it, seemingly capitalizing on the success of Laura.

The Corn Is Green is Bette Davis. She’s a schoolteacher in a mining town trying to make all the people less illiterate. No one particularly cares for her quest. Though she does get one student, and teaches him to read and hopefully pass an entrance exam to a school and escape his fate, despite the best efforts of his girlfriend, who wants him to stay stuck in the town for the rest of his life. It’s actually one of her melodramas I’m cool with. Mostly due to the supporting performances of the student and his girlfriend. Adventure is Victor Fleming directing Clark Gable and Greer Garson. He’s a merchant marine and she’s a librarian, and despite some differences, they fall in love and marry. Naturally he’s not suited to stable life and that causes some problems. You know the drill.

Lady on a Train is a fun noir with Deanna Durbin as a meddling debutante, running away to visit a relative despite her father’s best efforts, who witnesses a murder in an apartment window while on the train and is determined to investigate. It’s almost like Rear Window, since no one believes her and she looks into it. It’s almost a comedy set up, but is decidedly a noir. My Name Is Julia Ross is a noir about a woman who answers an ad in the paper about working for an old widow, and when she travels to the house, she’s drugged and transported to a different house. While there, she tells them what happened, and they all say that’s not true. They say she’s the wife of the old woman’s son and suffered a nervous breakdown. Basically, they’re gaslighting her into believing she’s someone else. So she alternates between fighting it, trying to escape, etc. It’s fun. A nice double feature with Gaslight.

Love Letters is an interesting movie. The script was written by Ayn Rand. Joseph Cotten is a soldier writing letters for his friend to his friend’s fiancée. He then goes off to war and returns to find out his friend is dead. He soon hears a story about a woman falling in love with a man she never met, some letters and a murder. Which sounds pretty similar to his friend’s situation. So he goes to investigate. He soon realizes the woman he met is actually the woman he was writing the letters to, only she has amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is. And she also may or may not have committed the murder. Somehow this is a drama and a romance and not a noir. It’s Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, though, so that’s nice. Also, Ayn Rand? What the fuck?

Christmas in Connecticut is Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who writes articles pretending to be a housewife on a farm in Connecticut with a husband and baby. Meanwhile she’s single and living in an apartment in New York. No one knows the truth. Her publisher has he host a Christmas dinner for a soldier so she can write about it, and she now has to find a farm and a husband and a baby, stat. Naturally romance and comedy ensue. Isle of the Dead is a Val Lewton horror movie about people trapped on an island by a plague outbreak.

The Story of G.I. Joe has nothing to do with the dolls. It’s about a war correspondent who travels with a platoon and documents all their stories. Burgess Meredith plays the correspondent and Robert Mitchum plays the C.O. He begins that archetype that you’d see a lot later in war movies — the officer who is sometimes tough on the men but clearly loves them, and is constantly tied up in the bureaucracy of his superiors. The dude who has to give the orders he doesn’t agree with, but never openly complains about it. Mainly it’s about putting a human face on war, giving each of the soldiers their own story. The Southerner is Jean Renoir. A movie about a family trying to start a farm, and all the hardships they face in doing so. One bad thing after another. There’s a great flood sequence here. She Wouldn’t Say Yes is a Claudette Colbert screwball comedy about a psychiatrist who meets a comic writer on a train and gets into all sorts of shenanigans.

They Were Expendable is John Ford’s first film after World War II. He’s credited as “John Ford Captain U.S.N.R.” It’s about American PT boats in the Philippines. John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, Donna Reed. The most interesting thing about it is that most people consider it fairly accurate for the time (which means it’s clearly the result of Ford’s experiences during the war). Yolanda and the Thief is a weird, fantasy musical known as one of the biggest disasters of Fred Astaire’s career. But it’s really interesting. Just because it failed only means it’s different than what you usually see, and for me, that’s more interesting than just another of the usual musicals I’d normally get. Vincente Minnelli directed this too.

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